Reading, Writing and Technology in the (Online) College Classroom

Edit (February 21, 2014): The original post is now gone and I’ve been asked to “unlink,” so I have. I’m keeping the interview up however, since I think it still holds. 

L.O.: Several years ago Mark Bauerlein wrote the article, Online Literacy is a Lesser Kind. The piece questions technology’s place in the classroom, given Millennials’ seeming inability to divorce their free time Web habits from their school-related Web assignments. It also blames the Web for sapping students’ intellectual initiative, in terms of their desire to read novels or untangle metaphors – for example. From what you’ve seen, do you think our “reading culture” is in jeopardy?

Dr. S.: I’m so glad you brought up Professor Bauerlein; I’m a big admirer of his writing. More evidence is being presented that we are living in more distracted times. I myself can’t write without having music playing in the background while continually checking my email and Twitter feed. Part of that is that it is my job to stay on top of my contacts – part of it is that it is convenient that I blame it on my job! While I agree with just about everything Professor Bauerlein writes, I think he doesn’t take the next step: how do we deal with this new reality? We’re not going to convince kids to unplug, not completely, so what do we do?

I say, let’s meet students where they are. Let’s use the web and their web activities as a means to our own ends. A recent blog, Essential Skills for 21st Century Survival: Pattern Recognition, argues (rightly) that students need to be able to recognize complex patterns in order to be able to act and react better and come up with innovative solutions. While this takes mindfulness (which indicates a willingness to slow down and reflect on the information around you), we can teach students to see patterns anywhere. And, at the end of the day, what are advance literacy skills other than a form of pattern recognition and learning to interpret those patterns?

We can teach students to be mindful of whatever they are reading or interacting with, be it video games, social media or even gossip sites. Get students to analyze the writing (and the comments) to see what kinds of patterns emerge, what they can see if they take the time to look. And then, get them to write on whatever they are interested in, some would even say obsessed with, both critically and uncritically. And when they’ve developed stronger literacy skills, more confidence in their writing and ideas, you can move on to applying that to the more “traditional” narratives, such as history or literature.

It is our jobs as teachers not to lament a time passed, but to teach students with the tools we have now. Students went through a similar process when learning to read: first the words, the making meaning from the collection of words, then moving on to added meaning implied by the specific pattern of words. But this was a process that needed to be taught or guided; students don’t just figure out imagery or literary allusions on their own. Why not teach the same skills with those things that students are most comfortable interacting with then move to where you want them to be?

I can understand Professor Bauerlein’s frustration, because as someone who has also taught university students, it is frustrating to see them lacking the skills they need to be successful in college and beyond. It is also extremely difficult to break them of these habits once they hit university; it was good enough to get them here, why shouldn’t they continue on the same path? As university instructors, it is a challenge, especially in English, where most (but certainly not all) were trained in more traditional literature. But we are responsible for teaching the future teachers, so if we want the students we get to be more adaptive and receptive, then we need to teach the teachers better, too. We all need to work together to help our students deal with the reality of the 21st Century.

L.O.: For students, how do you reconcile online writing skills (tweeting, texting, blogging) with traditional composition rules? Do they need to be reconciled? Differentiated?

Dr. S.: Which “traditional composition rules”? The 5-paragraph essay that the kids are drilled on in high school? Students need to be able to adapt their writing depending on the audience and purpose of what they are writing. The answer in high school to how to write is always the 5-paragraph essay, which is completely inadequate for the needs of college. How do you write a 10-page literary essay or 15-page lab report when the only two forms of writing you know are the 5-paragraph essay and texting your friends?

I tell my students that they already know how to adapt their language, message and delivery; they just do it unconsciously most of the time. I ask them to describe their weekend to a close friend (written down) and then describe the same weekend to one of their grandparents (also written down). They immediately see the difference, but we go on to discuss those differences and what they tell us about audience and purpose.

Once students see the many possibilities about writing, they begin to feel good exploring the different types, including blogging. We also read different kinds of essays to see what other writers do well (or not so well). That is one of the strengths of the Internet – the students can experience so many different writing styles, but they can also take advantage of the different audiences out in cyberspace. While the students will be typically drawn by a certain style, they can be taught to see their own habits to then adapt them for different audiences and purposes.

Obviously, you have to teach certain “hard and fast” rules for university writing: proper grammar, no using text language, no slang, little first-person, no contractions, etc. But you explain that these are rules in the same way that LOL and smh are conventions that everyone agrees to follow in online or text conversation. You also need to help them understand that proper grammar and following conventions is the same as showing up to a function properly dressed. You don’t show up to prom in jeans and you don’t show up to a dive bar in a gown. Same things when you write.

Students also need to realize that when they write online (blogs in particular), anyone can read them. Obviously the conventions are different for a blog, but is it a good idea to present a blog post written with completely incorrect grammar and filled with profanity? Who is the audience for that? And what impression will that leave on a casual reader?

We need to teach our students to be aware of their audience and purpose when they write and teach them to be able to move between types of writing, both online and offline.

L.O.: In your own writing, how do you approach the two contexts? How do they compare?

Dr. S.: For me, it’s more than two contexts. As an academic, a blogger on different topics for different audiences, a new Tweeter, and someone who is also trying to communicate with undergrads, I wear so many different writing hats. It’s also different for me because I grew up and really learned about writing as all of this was coming to be and evolving.

I started my undergraduate degree in 1996. I always wanted to be a writer. I did a program where you specialized in Professional Writing and had multiple paid internships as part of the experience. I learned about journalism, technical writing, copywriting, editing and translating, as well as more creative writing. The program was small and so flexible to the changes that were taking place with the rapid growth of the Internet. We took a class in web publishing and online journalism, such as it was understood then. I edited our school newspaper and oversaw the first online editions, which were simply the print articles placed online. All very basic, but really cutting-edge for an English BA at the time.

My work terms were primarily in technical writing for high-tech firms, but I did do an internship working for a government intranet (does anyone even know what that is anymore?) newspaper. I learned a little more about web design and writing for the screen, rather than writing for the page. I contributed columns for a friend’s website (which had started as an email newsletter to members culled from his days on bbs – primitive social media), blogging before it was called blogging. But I hated the dry, formulaic requirements of technical writing, which is where the jobs were, so I decided to do a Masters in literature. And I had to start all over again learning how to write.

The style I had learned in my BA was completely incompatible with academic writing in the humanities. I was trained to write in simple, direct sentences and to say what I had to say in the least number of words possible. Writing 15 pages on a novel, following the conventions of academic writing was the exact opposite, or so it seemed to me (don’t believe me; find an academic article in the humanities). I was also advised to abandon my side activities as a blogger, lest I appear unprofessional in my pursuit of higher degrees (I knew I was going to do a PhD) and a tenure-track job.

I never felt completely at home writing as an academic. But because of the conventions of academia, I felt like I missed the boat on blogging and other forms of social media, including the rapid evolution of web design. So coming into it now, it’s like I’m back where I started almost 15 (15!!!!) years ago, thinking I was a pretty good writer and being knocked on my ass, if you forgive the expression. It takes constant vigilance to remember who my audience is at any given time when I write. I also have to maintain openness in order to learn how to be better on Twitter and keep to fewer than 140 characters!
But one thing that 15 years of experience brings is a certain level of confidence. I’ll be wrong, but it’s ok, I’ll do better next time. All writers, no matter the level, should not be afraid to fail but also be willing to learn from those failures and remember the lesson the next time.

L.O.: Do you use technology in your classes? Is the goal to make your lessons relevant to students, or to make students relevant to employers?

Dr.S.: It’s been a challenge to really integrate technology into my class. I’ve used discussion boards, had students write Wikipedia-like entries on stories, and I try, whenever possible, to save students money by using online resources as to avoid the costs of textbooks. But at the end of the day, students typically come into class expecting one thing and that is to sit and be lectured at with either an exam or paper at the end. To get them to break out of those expectations is difficult. Part of it is to try and make the learning process more active for the students, to get them more involved. Part of it is to get them to think about how to use the technology differently, more actively, as well. Will it make them more relevant to their employers? I hope so, insofar as they will be more adaptive, flexible and early adopters of whatever technology comes along next week.

Professors are not actively encouraged to innovate in the classroom. In our research, certainly, but the time it takes to really experiment and develop new assignments or course structure is seen as better spent on your next publication, especially when you are learning the technology yourself. This isn’t an excuse, but it is a challenge we all face as teachers as we watch the world completely before our eyes. I think, for me, my way incorporate technology is to integrate it as a legitimate &quottext” that can be studied and written about. I think it’s important to mix traditional writing with online writing as that is the world the students will be entering.

L.O.: Online classes are more convenient for many students, but they’re also cost-effective for budget-strapped colleges. Pre-designed courses can be “administered” by adjuncts, and expanded without physical facility costs. Will these facts of e-learning homogenize curriculums, or do the opposite, by removing classroom walls and geographic barriers? 

Dr. S.: Online courses are a lot like face-to-face classes, you get out of it what you put in. And that goes for both the student and the professor. A student could attend every class and do homework for other classes or just simply zone out while spending little time on homework or assignments. A professor can simply read from the textbook or recycle the same lecture they’ve used for the last 30 years.

In the same way, an online class can be a wonderful experience or it could be a waste of time. Some professors treat it as a high-tech correspondence course while others work really hard to make it a really immersive experience. And some students treat online courses as a learning opportunity and others as a way to get easy credits.

As for pre-designed courses, that’s already happening in face-to-face situations in courses such as Freshman Writing. Low-paid adjuncts are handed textbooks, assignments and criteria. Or, because of they have so many courses at different places, they begin to keep reusing the same course over and over. Could it be made worse by moving the whole enterprise online? Yes. Could it be glossed over by pointing to the very real potential to reach non-traditional students? Yes.

Not really sure what to do about it, unfortunately.

L.O.: Some view e-learning as a “delivery” choice, others say it has to be a fundamental component of your teaching theory. Where do you stand?

Dr. S.: I think, as I said above, we need to meet students where they are. And if that means having forms of e-learning, then so be it. But it doesn’t mean that all students are on the same level technically. The great majority of Twitter users are older than 25. I’ve taught non-traditional or first-generation students with no reliable access to a computer or the Internet. So we have to make sure we achieve a balance and, again, to work with students where they are. Because 5, 10 years from now, the undergraduates will be completely different in terms of their technical knowledge and skill. The future may be in hand-held devices, smart phones. We have invested so much time and energy in certain e-learning tools, but it may be the wrong tools. If I could, I’d get into the app business. We, as instructors, need to be as flexible and adaptive as we hope our students to be.